Dealing With Loneliness in Relationships With Mental Health Differences

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

Posted: May 8, 2023

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes


Help for those living with loved ones who are working through mental health challenges.

Maybe you have just received the words from the doctor that your loved one has a diagnosis of a mental health disorder and it is going to require long-term care practices, maybe medication, certainly therapy and intentional work to process and live in a healthy way.

Maybe you have been living with someone who has a diagnosis and you are fighting to understand and feeling more and more overwhelmed and frustrated that you can’t get a grip in the way you thought you could. I want you to know, you are not alone.

It is deeply impactful for those who are living along side those who  have received  a diagnosis of a mental health differences that requires long term care practices. I work with  many family members, spouses and close friends of those with mental health needs and the toll it takes on emotions, relationships, physical strain and stress is real. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) data reveals that over 8 million people in the US alone provide care for family members with moderate to severe mental health needs, that’s “1 in 6 people” (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2022).

Loneliness is a common experience of those supporting loved ones who are on a journey of long-term mental health. Other family members may not understand what you or your loved one face in their mental health experiences. You may have experienced from others a lack of empathy, fear, ignoring, or attempts to “problem solve”, advice to “toughen up” or even “pray more”.

However well intentioned those offers of advice  were, fielding questions or responses on top of the life with your loved one is emotionally exhausting and adds to the feeling of isolation and overwhelm. You likely face many different experiences that your family, friends or faith community may not have any context for.

Ignoring this sense of loneliness is dangerous to you, the one without the diagnosis.

It is dangerous in many similar ways that people who have experienced disasters, abuse, or combat violence in war experience post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

Daily experiences add up

When you live daily in or next to others’ pain and behavior cycles, the continued energy expended to stay alert and ahead of the next “episode” or emotional rollercoaster of the unique mental health experiences of your loved one cause your nervous system to respond in protective signals and actions like  fight, flight, freeze or faun.

You may experience hyper-vigilance, lack of sleep or fitful sleep, lack of energy or interest in anything, suspicion, resentment or short anger responses, bowel or digestive trouble, sleep disturbance, disassociation or numbness (American Psychological Association, 2019).

These are symptoms of similar experiences to  PTSD, you may have noticed, and the difficulty is  your traumatic experiences and stress are likely ongoing and have been for some time. You can’t get out of the “war zone” of experiences and your nervous system is on alert most of the time.

It is human to feel overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated and resentful of the diagnosis, doctors, your loved one, and even God.

If the diagnosis is new, since some mental health issues are not diagnosable or don’t develop until early adulthood, your responses and theirs are likely scary and unexpected.

If you have lived around the behaviors a long time, the effects on your own nervous system may be less noticeable to you; you may even feel numb or disconnected more often than anything else.

Recognize and get support

It is important to recognize and begin sorting through your own experience of loneliness and overwhelm and it is helpful to begin with realities that are unique to your circumstances. A therapist and support groups can help you begin to address these and reduce the strain on your own nervous system.

Some of the realities that you may be experiencing and are important to begin to process are:

Reality of the impact of mental health differences on your daily life, work, home, finances, sex life, nutrition, schedule/routines.

Reality of relationship experiences, abusive or unsafe behavior.

Reality of grief in the relationship, disappointment or changes in expectations or dreams for your life.

Reality of physical and mental demands of the relationship.

Reality of loneliness in parts of your direct relationship with your loved one and in your community.

Reality of temptation to escape or numb your emotions with unhealthy activities or behaviors.

Reality of mental health stigma in some cultural and faith traditions.

Reality of ambiguity and tension in personal faith.

Many also find it difficult to separate themselves and their needs from the wellbeing of their loved one.

Staying balanced yourself is vital in processing life along side your loved one; your needs need to be addressed and losing yourself in care of your loved one can result in burn out, resentment, bitterness and physical decline.

Where to start intentional, proactive, mindful personal care:
  • Self-care – exercise, nutritious food, hygiene and regular health care.
  • Social connections outside the relationship – your emotional needs may not be met in your home; be intentional, be aware of needs, be proactive.
  • Group therapy – working with others who share similar experiences has a powerful impact in shifting the the weight of loneliness and builds resilience and skills to face and process your circumstances with hope and support.
  • Prayer – reading scriptures, journaling prayer, staying connected to a faith community.
  • Grief – work with a counselor to help you in acknowledging and grieving the changes, losses and disappointments in your expectations of the relationship; and also to cultivate intentionally the practice of gratitude.
  • Gratitude – cultivate practices of thankfulness to collect positive experiences and enjoyment, even small things.

Let your faith journey be your own – It is normal to have conflict and struggle at some points in your faith and in your relationship with God as you walk through experiences with your loved on and their journey in mental health. It’s important to engage in your own process, your own wrestle with emotions and trust in God and your unique journey with Him.

Let others’ faith journey with God be their own as well. You don’t have to take responsibility for their questions of faith when they encounter questions about mental health.

Staying honest in the relationship is important

There are many areas of change, dynamics of responsibility, personal history and power dynamics that change in relationships with people who are facing limitations or cycles of behavior and mental health differences. There are times you feel more vulnerable and times they do, both of you need support and therapeutic work to help you individually process what healthy boundaries, vulnerability, trust and patterns of interaction look like for you both.

Some starting areas of awareness for you to learn  more about and address in your work personally:

Don’t rescue your loved one

Encourage them to pursue counseling, take medications, but don’t take on the task for them. Attend your own therapy; this is hard and you need support too.

Attend couple’s or family counseling that is trauma informed –

The impact of mental health differences is real, traumatic to the nervous system of both involved. Consistent, intentional processing the realities of how to communicate and share your experiences together can help you both learn to talk together about your experiences and build meaningful connections and recognize boundaries.

Get clear with your own boundaries

Be honest with what can you do and what you can’t.

You cannot be responsible to keep that loved one safe from self-harm, they have to take responsibility for their own safety and if they cannot they need support from an outside source to help them process their own emotions, thoughts and choices to see value and worth in their own life and to continue to choose to protect and seek healthy care for themselves.

You cannot be that person’s counselor.

It is one thing to offer a listening ear to your loved one as they share their experiences and their process of dealing with their health and healing journey, but taking on the responsibility of sorting through various mental health needs is not your job.

When grief and emotional flooding happen-

Your nervous system is doing its job and telling you it is overwhelmed and needing support, not punishment or to try harder.

Take time off, engage in mindful practices, reach out to a trusted friend, write down your emotions and thoughts, take a few minutes to move around, get outside if you can, change your environment.

Before responding to others in the emotion of the moment, give permission to check in with yourself.

You can use the acronym HALT to ask yourself: am I hungry, angry, lonely, tired?

And give the care your body needs as soon as you can.

Build your resources

Connecting to resources in your area, both personally and as a family unit, can provide continual support for your own needs and that of your loved one. Don’t wait. Be proactive. Acknowledge and embrace the awkward feelings of first time meetings, there are places and groups that can help you connect to support and strengthen your own mental, emotional and relational resources to stay present and thriving in your own life.

National Alliance of Mental Illness – NAMI, support groups, resources and education –

Churches That Heal – resources by Christian Psychologist Henry Cloud –

Celebrate Recovery – A National Christian organization for topics and needs of those struggling with needs and support for their families –

One final thought, if you are a friend of someone whose family is experiencing changes and challenges in mental health differences, don’t wait for them to reach out to you to check on them. You do not have to be their therapist, just being present with a cup of coffee or a kind word can communicate  your care and support even when you don’t understand all they are going through.

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